Verdict: 5 stars (out of 5) – Watch by any means necessary
Somewhere in a Tokyo street, there is a sushi restaurant with ten seats. And at this restaurant, a very old “shokunin” named Jiro serves the world’s finest sushi to his customers. He stands over them as they swallow, within seconds, something that has taken hours to prepare from a technique that has been cultivated over decades.
And how does Jiro run a sushi restaurant that has three Michelin Stars? In his own words, by doing “the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.” Jiro Dreams of Sushi gives us people – from rice dealers to tuna vendors – who are the best at what they do. These people move in worlds invisible to us: we are shown a tuna vendor with an inordinate amount of knowledge who inspects pieces of fish, seeing what we cannot, and our inexperienced eyes likewise prevent us from seeing the years of labor behind the simple sushi pieces that are put in front of the camera.
Our blindness is what Jiro Dreams of Sushi seeks to rectify. It unrelentingly displays the hours of work and crowds of world-class professionals (and apprentices) that are behind each piece of sushi. Shots of restaurant labor permeate the entire film, making us aware of the almost immeasurable effort behind a flavor, a technique, or a dish.
The film also dotes on the almost anticlimactic culmination of that effort: the camera captures, over and over again, the placing of a single, small, unelaborate piece of sushi on a flat plate. All of the lives shown to us in the film – with their achievements, crises, and memories – are completely subordinate to the craft, enthralled by the cube of rice and tuna that appears in front of customers who have waited months to taste it.
The score accompanies these displays perfectly: pieces from composers like Tchaikovsky and Philip Glass match the repetitive frenzy of the film’s subjects and contributes to the sense that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the lives of these craftsmen are almost forms of art themselves. Even Jiro’s unconscious is obsessed with his craft – ideas about new dishes constantly throw him out of sleep. “Just when you think you know it all,” says a fish vendor, “you realize that you’re just fooling yourself.”
And that realization is the film’s central paradox: Jiro “climbs to reach the top,” but doesn’t “know where that top is” – he struggles for perfection while recognizing the impossibility of that endeavor. And while this struggle may seem almost tragic, Jiro affirms that he is “ecstatic all day,” never once hating his work after having given his life to it. These men are their craft, forever chasing that “ideal moment of deliciousness.”
Jiro’s oldest son Yoshikazu faces a similar impossibility: the inevitability of his succession over his father. Yoshikazu wishes for his father’s immortality only so he can “make sushi forever,” relieving Yoshikazu of the burden of having to replace him. To many of those underneath Jiro, it seems that he is a form of perfection unto himself, equally unattainable. Jiro remains the ideal ‘shokunin’ – a craftsman who is almost transcendent in his skill and dedication, an artisan who does not understand the concept of retirement.
According to Jiro, shokunin get the highest quality of fish and apply their technique, caring only about improving their sushi. Money seems to be of no concern. And with all courses (created daily around market availability) starting at a price of 30 000 yen (around 377 Canadian dollars), there seems to be a lot money to not care about. But when a restaurant employs apprentices that have to labor exhaustively for at least ten years before they’re allowed to cook the eggs, the prices start to seem less egregious. The one egg-cooker interviewed had cooked over 200 batches of egg sushi, over a period of months, before he made one that was acceptable to Jiro. When he finally had Jiro’s approval, he cried. The title of shokunin would be earned years later, a title these chefs labor after for decades.
This is where there seems to be an odd irony to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, in that the immense weight of the labor behind each dish comes to rest upon the customer – Jiro places the sushi in front of you and watches you eat, and all of the customers (even prominent food critics) describe their nervousness about eating at “Sukiyabashi Jiro.” An apprentice tells us that “all that matters is Jiro’s approval,” and the eating process seems to be as rigid and ritualistic as the culinary preparation itself.
Takashi, Jiro’s younger son, runs a replica of his father’s restaurant and claims that his customers appreciate his more relaxed atmosphere. Yet nervousness seems almost impossible to avoid – I’d be terrified of grossly offending Jiro by insisting for a fork or miso soup. The eating is almost too much of a performance, where the customer must actively participate in the “three movements” of Jiro’s courses. Customers book months in advance, the seating arrangements are memorized, and Jiro even adjusts portion sizes according to his customers to maintain the pace of the meal.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi finds its strength in allowing its subjects to tell their own stories, and it is their narrations that accompany the movie’s beautiful shots of sushi preparation. Jiro not onlylends us insight into how these deceptively simple dishes are made, but allows us to meet and come to know a man who has worked for seventy-five years to perfect a food.
If anything, I’ve been convinced to put this restaurant on my bucket list, since my twelve-dollar sushi buffets won’t cut it anymore. Who wants to go to Japan to eat some grilled egg a chef worked ten years to make?
Movies that do it better: Man on a Wire, Big River Man, and Werner Herzog’s documentaries (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Abyss) all brilliantly showcase incredible, hilarious, empathetic and eccentric people, but Jiro remains a very tough documentary to top.